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“Life Is but a Two-step”: The Basque Legacy in Idaho - Basque Arborglyphs: Culture in the Carvings

Boise National Forest, Idaho, 2004
by Susie Osgood, FS Archaeologist

During the summer of 2004, the Boise NF hosted the first PIT project in Idaho to document tree carvings left by Basque sheepherders. For two weeks in July, volunteers located, recorded, photographed, and videotaped the names, drawings, and thoughts of Basque herders on the forest from the early 1900s to the present day. 

Why is this project important? One reason is that livestock raising was and still is an important cultural and traditional use of Idaho’s NFs. The camps, corrals, and yes, tree carvings may be eligible for listing in the NRHP. The FS has substantial historical records about the industry, yet the voices of Basque sheepherders are seldom represented. Documenting Basque tree carvings helps us capture their experiences on the forest. Another reason the project is so important is that most of the tree carvings are on aspen trees, which are relatively short-lived, depending on their location. Mortality, disease, and wildfire destroy many carvings. 

We knew we had some arborglyphs on the forest. We had no idea we had so many! To my surprise, volunteers found hundreds of carvings. They cheerfully ignored the heat, biting insects, and stinging nettles in search of the oldest and most elaborate carvings. Although most were names and dates, the Basque also left poignant reminders that they were lonely and missed their homeland. Other carvings document their passionate desire for independence and in some instances political beliefs that were dangerous to express back home. 

This PIT project was the kickoff for a partnership between the FS, the Cenarrusa Center for Basque Studies, and the Basque Museum and Cultural Center to promote the legacy of the “Euskaldunak” people in Idaho. The Cenarrusa Center, with a grant from the Idaho Humanities Council, brought in Dr. Joxe Mallea-Oleaxte from the University of Nevada–Reno to help with the project. Dr. Mallea-Oleaxte, who has worked on previous PIT projects, is the author of Speaking through the Aspens: Basque Tree Carvings in California and Nevada. His ability to “read the aspen” made a profound difference in our interpretations of the carvings. 

The project was a tremendous success, in large part because of the volunteers’ enthusiasm and the overwhelming support we received from Idaho’s Basque community. On each Wednesday of the project, the Basque Museum and Cultural Center brought visitors to spend the day with the PIT volunteers. In the evening, the museum hosted a traditional Basque dinner and dancing for the volunteers. 

Work on the tree carvings will continue next year. I envision this as a multiyear project that hopefully will expand to Idaho’s other NFs and explore other aspects of the Basque experience. There is evidence for Basque homesteads on the forest, and the cultural transition from Basque to Peruvian herders in recent years deserves some attention. To all of those volunteers who made this project so enjoyable, thank you!
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